Horror films in general belong to the sensualists, but that’s doubly true of films about the vampire myth, which mingle sex and death into seductive entrancement. That’s how a film like Bram Stoker’s Dracula can feature some of the worst performances of the ’90s and still be almost wholly redeemed by Francis Ford Coppola’s fevered bravado. Based on a popular Rachel Klein YA novel—one that predates the Twilight phenomenon, which the film, in some respects, attempts to rebuff—The Moth Diaries suffers from precisely the opposite problem. Drawing explicit parallels to “Carmilla,” the 1872 gothic novella about female vampirism published 25 years before Stoker’s book, it offers the chance to express the vampire myth in wholly feminine terms and assert a classism absent from the Twilight series. Yet writer-director Mary Harron, a supremely intelligent adaptor who did wonders with the screen version of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, simply doesn’t have the chops to give this story the florid kick it needs.
Set in Brangwyn, a fancy all-girls boarding school in an unnamed secluded hinterland, The Moth Diaries sounds like teen exploitation of the Roger Corman school, but it’s eager to disappoint those expectations. Sarah Bolger plays a student who comes into the school year with a cheery attitude, having gotten enough distance from her father’s suicide to enjoy her friends and move on with her life. But when a tall, pale, freakish new student (Lily Cole) gets between Bolger and her best friend (Sarah Gadon), Bolger’s jealousy turns to suspicion. Could this new girl who speaks perfect German, Latin, and Greek; plays haunting tunes on the piano; skulks around in the shadows; and generally looks and acts like a vampire at all times actually be one?
The Moth Diaries deals with the intense emotions of girls in the blush of adolescence, but Harron, perhaps wary of exploitation, pours cold water over them. Between the heavy voiceover narration, the multiple literary lectures (Scott Speedman turns up as the teacher who provides the allusions), and the stilted scenes of Bolger and her friends hanging out, the film plays like TV-movie gothic, plodding along to the expected revelations and bloodlettings. The vampire myth hasn’t exactly been underexplored in recent years, and Harron’s twist doesn’t twist nearly hard enough.